Growing up in the city of Camagüey on the island nation of Cuba, Gamboa was first introduced to diving at 5 years old. A “talent selection” group of national sports officials was visiting his school, evaluating kids on their athletic potential. At the end of the day, Gamboa was given an invitation to try out at the local diving school.
“It was pretty competitive, because they invited more than 100 or 150 kids and they selected 12 of them,” Gamboa said. “So you go through a really strict talent selection, and they do all sorts of tests with jumps and flexibility, and all that stuff. That year, I got selected as one of those 12, and every year they do the same. So those 12 get going, and then by the end of the first two years, there are just six of us.”
Despite the rigor of training and selection, Gamboa endured and soon began to excel at his sport. As a member of what he described as one of the best diving schools in the country, he won 10 national titles, all at the junior level. He also competed for the junior Cuban national team from 1993-2001, traveling to many international meets.
Then, at age 20, for reasons he really couldn’t explain, he decided to retire from competitive diving and move into coaching. When asked today, he described how complex this decision was.
“I don’t know if it’s something I regret, but it’s something I will always carry, that I stopped diving so early,” Gamboa said. “In Cuba, it’s a little different. There was a lot going on, a lot of situations that took me down that route … to stop diving.”
As a coach, Gamboa continued to show his prowess, leading his hometown team in Camagüey to four more junior national titles. In 2007, two years after graduating from the University of Havana, he was offered work in Venezuela as the head coach of the Zulia diving team. His coaching excellence shone during his two-year stint there, qualifying one diver for Junior World Championships and three more to the Venezuelan national team.
In 2009, Gamboa was supposed to return to Cuba. However, seeking growth and opportunity for himself and his family, Gamboa went to the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela. After some discussions and acquiring the proper paperwork, he made the decision to emigrate to the United States as an asylum seeker. Had he been discovered by authorities in the airport, he said, he could have been detained and forcibly sent back to Cuba.
“You have to make a decision. The economy, the finances, the politics, it’s pretty tough there,” Gamboa said. “You don’t have too many opportunities to offer to your family, so I had to make a decision, and I knew going back to Cuba wasn’t the best one. I wanted the opportunity to come to a country like the United States, where you have so many opportunities for growth, and I think it worked out really well.”
‘Doing anything to survive’
Gamboa’s path didn’t get any easier upon arriving in the United States. He spoke no English, and with no family in the country, relied on the various refugee services offered by the Catholic Church. This led him to Kentucky for a time, where he found employment as a construction worker. He was “doing anything to survive," he said.
Despite these circumstances, diving seemed to come looking for Gamboa. In April of 2010, it arrived in the unlikeliest of ways: an audition for a diving show at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
“I found this friend of mine from the national team in Cuba on Facebook, and we got in touch. He was working at SeaWorld,” Gamboa said. “They were looking for full-time divers, so my friend asked me, ‘Can you still dive?’ and at that point, I thought it would be great. So I went for the audition and they gave me a full-time job.”
Gamboa credited much of his growth to his years at SeaWorld. During this time, he was able to learn English while studying at Valencia College. He also met many people in the American diving community, allowing him to begin thinking about re-entering the coaching circuit, specifically with YCF Diving in Orlando.
“It allowed me to start fitting myself in and learning about the country and the culture and how diving works here,” Gamboa said. “Like I said, I wasn’t coaching at that moment. For four years, I just did the show, and also my English wasn’t ready … After four or five years, that’s when I felt like I was ready to dive into coaching, and so that’s what I did.”
‘Opportunities started coming’
He began his American coaching career as an assistant with YCF — under the leadership of two-time Olympian Mark Ruiz — where he helped coach various national finalists at junior and senior levels. He was also an assistant coach at the Fort Lauderdale Diving Team, helping Ryan Hawkins to the 2016 winter synchronized diving national title.
In 2016, Gamboa got his first opportunity to lead an NCAA program, taking over as head diving coach at Florida Atlantic University. In his only campaign there, he won two conference coach of the year titles while leading two divers to the regional championships and one to a national championship berth — the school’s first in 15 years. Despite the success he enjoyed, Gamboa wanted to compete at an even higher level.
“At FAU, we had that great season, and then opportunities started coming up,” Gamboa said. “I felt great there, but it was a small school ... I didn’t feel like I could offer the best opportunity to the divers, as far as giving them all the resources to develop and reach their best potential as divers. That really limited us.”
His desire for greater horizons first led him to Midland, Texas, in 2018, where he learned how to use many state-of-the-art training resources — an important step to coaching at a higher level. Soon, though, his competitive drive had him on the move again, this time to the University of Missouri, where he met current UNC head swimming and diving coach Mark Gangloff. Gangloff said Gamboa’s organization and interactions with athletes make him a truly special coach.
“He designs, and has a specific purpose for, everything that is going on in his workouts,” Gangloff said. “But I just think that the way he is coaching and always giving feedback to the athletes, it makes the athletes feel like they’re invested in the program and engaged all the time, and if you’re a coach, you can see that.”
‘Work your way through'
When Gangloff was hired to be UNC’s new head coach in May of 2019, Gamboa was his first choice for head diving coach. While Gamboa said he planned to remain at Mizzou for a long time, Gangloff was eventually able to convince him to join the team in Chapel Hill. The convincing factor, Gangloff said, was their ability to make an impact and create something new at UNC.
And make an impact he did. In just his first year as a Tar Heel, six divers earned regional championship qualification, with sophomore Emily Grund and first-year Fabian Stepinski earning NCAA Championship qualification, prior to the competition’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about her coach, Grund pointed to his effectiveness as both a manager and teacher.
“He did come into my diving career a little later on, but honestly, I think I’m getting a little bit of both,” Grund said. “We are fine-tuning things, but I’m also learning things that I didn’t know before him, whether that’s in the diving world, like learning new dives, or getting over some mental hills that I struggled with, but also just teaching me to be a good leader and teammate inside and outside of the pool.”
Now, after a successful season, Gamboa said he plans to remain in Chapel Hill for the foreseeable future.
For a coach whose career has seen self-described periods of “going around for a while,” that is unusual — then again, his whole career has been unusual. He came to this country more than a decade ago as an immigrant with an uncertain future. Now, he is coaching at the pinnacle of the sport he loves.
He credited his ability to persevere to one thing: hard work.
“It’s so hard to get here and be able do what you love and, as a professional, what you went to school to be, especially because of the English and the different cultural situations,” Gamboa said. “I’ve really been able to make that transition. It’s really hard, but it’s not impossible. You’ve got to work your way through.”
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